What have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost taxpayers? Tallying up what we've spent so far gives an incomplete picture, according to a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Queens College economist Ryan D. Edwards.
As of now, direct military costs—the price of keeping troops and equipment in the field—total about $800 billion for the two wars. A more expansive estimate, from the Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz and the Harvard public finance specialist Linda Bilmes, includes the present costs to all adversely affected by the wars in the future, not just direct government military expenditures. It comes to around $3 trillion.
As Edwards notes, the wars' costs will continue rising no matter what happens. "Even if the war in Iraq and Afghanistan were to end tomorrow, capping direct military costs immediately," he explains, "cumulative war costs would continue to rise over time" when payments for long-term disability, health care, and other veteran benefits kick in.
Charting the costs of federal benefits for veterans of World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, Edwards found that they follow an inverted-U shape, with the costs peaking long after the war ends. For World War I, maximum veterans' expenditures were in 1965; for World War II, in 1980.
Edwards admits that some of those expenditures are related to health care expenses that would have been incurred without war injuries. But he also notes that veterans' benefits do not capture all the losses in income and quality of life that the wounded and their families experience. For that reason, he says, "the public costs of war-related compensation for service-related injuries and deaths, which are the most widely cited statistics, will understate the true social costs."